A MEETING WITH RINA SAWAYAMA - CRASH Magazine
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A MEETING WITH RINA SAWAYAMA

By Alice Butterlin

On the occasion of Rina Sawayama collaboration with Elton John, rediscover our interview.
Released in the middle of quarantine, the album SAWAYAMA dropped like a bomb on the pop music landscape, marking a return to the future where the infectious melodies of 2000s-era Britney meet deconstructed R’n’B and neo-metal riffs. The Japanese-British musician Rina Sawayama hearkens back to the golden era of pop, while the surface of nostalgia hides subtle and committed lyrics about family, identity and over-consumption. Always with a touch of self-mockery, she outlines the state of her tumultuous existence trapped between two cultures. SAWAYAMA is as much a love letter to Japan as it is a disillusioned reflection on the weight of its own heritage. We sat down for a conversation with the pop star, the new queen of cross-genre hybridization.

How are you doing? Are you still in lockdown in London?

Kind of, semi lockdown I’d say. Some people have gone back to offices and stuff. I’ve started shooting something in a real social distance-compliant studio. It’s pretty cool to see how people have adapted to shooting situations. When pubs and shops are open, it does feel like it’s going back to normal. Although I’m not going to be stepping in a pub anytime soon.

Not even if the tables are outside?

I don’t know. I’ve never been a pub kind of gal anyway. I much prefer drinking at home. I’ve got a garden and I always joke to people saying that a can of beer in a garden is a biergarten. You don’t need to go to a specific bar to experience that. I’ve been trying to convince my friends to transition to another type of lifestyle. But anyway, everything has been fine, I’m very fortunate.

Like everyone else, I discovered your album SAWAYAMA during lockdown. It must have been a strange feeling to release that while being alone at home, receiving all the love from fans virtually.

Yeah, it’s a pretty weird situation. We were meant to go on tour a week after the release of the album so we would have got a direct feedback. You meet the fans and can see how it resonates with them. All I’ve seen is online, which has been amazing. I was amazed to hear that Elton John is a huge fan. He even FaceTimed me. Every sort of praise about the album has been online which is very accessible but I definitely miss touring. Spotify put up a huge billboard with my face on it in Times Square but there’s no one there. (laughs) It’s pretty epic.

Did you expect your album to have such a huge success from the very beginning?

I guess I never know what success is. Doing this independently, my measure of success had to move around quite a bit. Selling out a tour meant success for me, even if that had to change a bit. The amount of vinyl and CDs that people have bought has really blown my mind. We put a couple of thousand on sale every couple of weeks. That’s been really crazy. And people have been streaming. I think my followers have doubled or something… I don’t know. Again, it’s all through the screen. I don’t have any real world recollection of things.

Before getting deeper into this new album, I’d like to go back to your beginnings to understand how you made your way to music.

I came to music quite late I think. I went to university to study Political Science, Psychology and Sociology. I had several jobs in my early twenties which weren’t related to music at all. At that point, I had known people in the industry who told me about bad record deals that hadn’t worked out for the artist. I wanted to make sure I was able to support myself, not signing into something just because I needed the money. I worked really hard, having three jobs on the side. Then I released my first single when I was twenty-three. But then nothing really happened until around 2016. Things started to gain slight traction. I was on Dazed 100, a popular list in the UK. I was getting recognized at the hair salon or the ice-cream van where I was working part-time. I had really distinctive orange hair at the time. (laughs) Having that real-life experience outside of the industry has been really good. I have lived a life outside of it and I really enjoyed my past jobs. (laughs) I’d be happy to give hope to people who think they need to be signed when they’re really young to have a career in music.

Also, if you had signed too quickly, maybe you wouldn’t have had the time to flourish into what you have become today?

Yeah, you just never know. I’m a proper geek about these things and I think the people who do best when they’re signed early are the people who have a very solid family that supports them financially and pushes them. You think about Beyoncé, Billie Eilish and Britney Spears. All of their family is involved in creating someone like that. Sadly, my family was quite broken. We were definitely not in a financial situation to do that. If I had fallen into that too young, I would’ve lost my way for sure. I’m glad I started as an adult.

Where you always a big dreamer throughout your life?

Yes, I was definitely dreaming. I would say reading and not comparing myself was the most important. Doing internal work. There was some family stuff going on that I really had to work through. I had severe depression after university for several years. So I had to work on that. My jobs on the side were there to help fund my therapy and the books I needed to read to write better songs or poetry. Going to Cambridge university, you’re used to being quite studious. I approached my life a bit like that. I didn’t see a female Asian pop star succeeding in America or the UK and the Western world in general. Now there are way more. In the last five years there’s been a lot more visibility. That’s really great. But growing up, I didn’t see anyone like that. If I dreamt, it had to come from pure imagination. I think I studied more than dreamt.

Growing up, were you a big fan of pop stars?

Oh yeah. Ever since I can imagine, I’ve been in love with pop and female pop stars. I went to a Japanese school for the first several years of my life so I kind of missed out on the Spice Girls. I came to British education when Kylie Minogue was really big. R’n’B was starting to come forward with Beyoncé’s debut album – and Destiny’s Child obviously. I was listening to a lot of Ashanti, Justin Timberlake, Ciara, Neptunes, Timbaland… all those people. It was always quite mainstream. I had an indie phase when I was like fifteen to seventeen. There was a huge surge of indie bands in the UK. I couldn’t afford to go to any of the concerts of the big pop stars. I’ve only recently seen Beyoncé. I’ve never seen Britney or Christina. I used to go to smaller local gigs to see bands. But female vocalists are my thing.

Your music has been associated with that 2000s pop star aesthetic. How do you manage to blend nostalgia with contemporary matters?

I really didn’t want it to sound too ‘throwback’. There’s only one song on the record which is very throwback: “Love me 4 me”, with that New Jack Swing vibe. Obviously Bruno Mars has resurrected it. But it is originally associated with Janet Jackson. The rest is a mish mash. I don’t really like music that is too referential unless it’s done really well. I do think Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson killed it. But in general, I think it’s too easy to do that. Maybe some of my earlier music was a bit like that but with SAWAYAMA I wanted to create a weird collage of music and see if it worked.

From the RINA EP to the SAWAYAMA album, there’s a transition between songs being about online matters to real life relationships. Does it go hand in hand with social media shifting from the projection of a fake perfect life to a place to express political and social views?

I think it was because my songwriting style changed a little bit. I started writing with other people and at first I didn’t want to write about myself. So a lot of my EP was about other people and society in general. This record is so much more personal but every song is dramatized and made into a mini TV show. For “Paradisin’” I was thinking of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Back to the Future and that kind of 80s vibe. For “Dynasty” I was thinking of some very opulent and messy story about Asian families. I was able to be a bit more confident with what I wanted to experiment with. A lot of people talk about love or the relationships they’re having with a significant other. I’ve always been interested in bigger issues and I always believe in the saying that every song is a love song. Whether I’m breaking up with the world in “Fuck this World” or in “Dynasty”, it’s all about love anyway. I try to mold the idea of a love song into different scenarios. Love with the family, love with the chosen family, love with the world, love with yourself…

How did the creation of SAWAYAMA start?

“Dynasty” was the first song we recorded. I actually performed it on the second mini tour that I did in the US in 2018. But we changed it quite a bit, it didn’t have that guitar solo and the singing bit. It also had a bit of a different structure. I’m sure there must be twenty versions of that song with different verses in different places. But I’m really happy with the final version. We worked really hard on that song. The second song we recorded was “Snakeskin” and we knew from the start that those two would bookend. We worked on bits and bobs but I’d say the key tracks were “Dynasty”, “STFU”… But then “XS”, “Comme des Garçons” and the rest of the tracks were all written in six months. “Who’s gonna save you now” was written ages ago but we completely redid the production. It didn’t have that stadium rock vibe at all, it had more of a 90s Max Martin vibe. I was just like: “I’ve done that in the EP”. At that time, I had just watched A Star is Born and I thought that moment on stage was really magical. Several movies about musicians came out at the same time, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody… I really wanted to sound like my music was coming out of these big stages.

Was it the first time you were working with songwriters?

Yes, I would say. In the studio, usually Clarence Clarity does all the production and I’m in the same room writing the lyrics and the melody. It’s a combined effort but there’s no one to help me write the lyrics or the melody. Normally I’ll start it with a little a cappella hook and he’ll go off that and do his own thing. But this time I had amazing people like Jonny Lattimer and Lauren Aquilina who are there to help you write the core of the song. It was incredible and I really respect songwriters to help me write to the best of my ability.

Which song lyrics made you really connect personally to them the most?

I think “Tokyo Love Hotel” is one of my favorites. It’s a metaphor for how I feel about people visiting Japan. It was fun to express my frustration. For me the best songwriting comes when there is a really clear intention or a specific memory from a songwriter, who is able to broaden it and pick a metaphor. Then, whoever listens to it can interpret it in a different way. People listen to “Tokyo Love Hotel” and think it’s a love song or about breaking up with someone but actually, if you dig deeper, it’s about my relationship to Tokyo and tourists. If I had been too specific about that and hadn’t used a metaphor, it would have been way too niche…

Discover the rest of the interview in our latest issue, Crash #92.

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Photographer: Gareth McConnell
Stylist: Armelle Leturcq
Hair : Tomomi Roppongi using Maria Nila @Saint Luke
Make up: Ana Takahashi
Manucurist: Lauren Michelle Pires @D&V Management
Photographer assistant : Jurrga R.
Stylist assistant : Leila Abouzia
Hair assistant : Jason Goh
Manucurist assistant : Milana Milcanovska

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